EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Last year, Mike Sweeder watched an esports competition on a nationally telecast sports network.
Just a few years ago, this would have seemed impossible, but a rapidly expanding esports landscape has made nationally televised events a regular occurrence now.
Sweeder, who serves as director of educational media technology at Egg Harbor Township High School, could have never imagined that the high school he works for would be developing an esports club less than a year after he saw that tournament on television.
“I had never known how big and fast esports was growing across the world,” Sweeder said, noting that his nephew explained to him that esports was now one of the most popular spectator sports in the world.
Now, that sport could be finding its way to high schools across South Jersey.
“Many people are talking to Atlantic County educators about creating esports designations,” said Anthony Gaud, president of INGAME Esports and G3 Esports.
“Within a few years, pretty much every school will have an esports team.”
Interest in high school esports has been steadily rising as a result of the newfound prominence of professional esports and the successful implementation of esports teams at universities.
“What’s happening in South Jersey isn’t just happening at the collegiate and pro level. High school students are actively seeking these opportunities out,” said Demetrios Roubos, director of information system and security administrator and esports coach at Stockton University.
Roubos said that area high schools like Egg Harbor Township have reached out to Stockton with questions about how to develop their own esports programs.
“Communications with local schools have included invitations to utilize the equipment and participate in scrimmages against Stockton team members,” said Scott Huston, chief information officer at Stockton and an esports advisor.
“We’ve seen how beneficial it’s been to our students, so we’d be happy if every local university and high school had their own program.”
Stockton University has found esports prestige quickly, helping to put the school, and South Jersey, on the map as a major player in esports.
In April, the school’s esports team won the Eastern College Athletic Conference “Fortnite” championship and placed second in the “League of Legends” championship.
“Stockton esports is defining what the gold standard of what college esports is,” Gaud said. “We’re still trying to figure out what that will be for Atlantic City.”
According to Huston, Atlantic City’s enthusiasm for esports and Stockton’s instant success in the field could lead to an interesting opportunity for both parties.
“There’s a very good possibility that Stockton’s Atlantic City campus gets its own facility. We’re looking at models that could potentially be put on the A.C. campus now,” Huston said. “This would be great for community partnerships with the city and would be another facility our students could take advantage of.”
Atlantic City has been making an effort to bring more esports programming to the area.
This past September, Boardwalk Hall partnered with INGAME Esports and Caesars Entertainment to hold the Ultimate Gaming Championship’s Halo Classic tournament, and in June the venue will host an Overwatch tournament.
“Esports is a natural fit through Atlantic City, one of the gaming capitals of the world,” Roubos said.
The city is still looking for the factor that could make esports truly take off in South Jersey. It might have found it when the state Division of Gaming Enforcement gave approval for sports betting on esports tournaments.
Esports gambling and betting could help differentiate South Jersey from other esports markets, especially as other states begin to host their own tournaments and events and field their own teams.
The first legal esports bets in New Jersey were placed on NoV. 8, with bettors placing wagers on a League of Legends tournament.
“This is a way for the casinos to tap into the millennial market. Casinos should view it as a transition to a new product,” Gaud said. “It could be the biggest thing that attracts new customers to the A.C. market.”
With South Jersey’s esports excitement infiltrating casinos, universities and high schools, it’s clear that the region is all in on the industry.
“South Jersey is set up very well to become an esports destination,” Huston said.
GALLERY: UGC Halo Classic in Atlantic City